Chapter no 21

The Queen of Nothing (The Folk of the Air, 3)

A ‌pounding on the door drives me to find one of Cardan’s dressing gowns and pull it awkwardly over the shirt I slept in.

Before I get there, it opens, and Randalin barges in. “My lady,” he says, and there is a brittle, accusatory tone in his voice. “we have much to discuss.”

I pull the robe more tightly around me. The councilor must have known Cardan wouldn’t be with me to come in like this, but I won’t give him the satisfaction of asking about Cardan’s whereabouts.

I can’t help recalling the Bomb’s words: You’re the High Queen of Klfhame. Act liPe it.

It is difficult, though, not to be shamed by being nearly undressed, with bed hair and bad breath. It’s hard to project dignity right at the moment. “what do we possibly have to talk about?” I manage, my voice as chilly as I can make it.

The Bomb would probably say I should throw him out on his ear.

The hob draws himself up, looking swollen with his own self- importance. He fixes me with his stern goat eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. His ram horns are waxed to a high gloss. He goes over to the low couch and takes a seat.

I head to the door, opening it to find two knights I don’t know. Not Cardan’s full guard, of course. They would be with him. No, those who stand in front of the door are likely to be the least favored of his guard and ill-equipped to stop a member of the Living Council in high

dudgeon. Across the hall, however, I spot Fand. when she sees me, she comes alert.

“Do you have another message for me?” I ask. Fand shakes her head.

I turn to the royal guard. “who let the councilor in here without my permission?” I demand. Alarm lights their eyes, and one begins to sputter an answer.

“I told them not to allow it,” Fand interrupts. “You need someone to protect your person—and your door. Let me be your knight. You know me. You know I’m capable. I’ve been waiting here, hoping—”

I recall my own longing for a place in the royal household, to be chosen as part of the personal guard of one of the princesses. And I also understand why she wouldn’t have been likely to be picked before. She’s young and—all evidence suggests—outspoken.

“Yes,” I say. “I would like that. Fand, consider yourself the first of my guard.” Never having had my own guard before, I find myself a little bit at a loss with what to do with her now.

“By oak and ash, thorn and rowan, I vow that I will serve you loyally until my death,” she says, which seems rash. “Now, would you like me to escort the councilor out of your apartments?”

“That won’t be necessary.” I shake my head, although imagining it gives me some real satisfaction, and I am not sure I entirely keep the smile off my face at the thought. “Please send a messenger to my old rooms and see if Tatterfell can bring some of my things. In the meantime, I would speak with Randalin.”

Fand frowns past me at the councilor. “Yes, Your Majesty,” she says, bringing her fist to her heart.

with the hope of new clothing in the future, at least, I go back inside. I perch myself on the arm of the opposite sofa and regard the councilor more contemplatively. He ambushed me here to throw me off in some way. “Very well,” I say with that in mind. “Speak.”

“Low Court rulers have begun arriving. They claim to have come to bear witness to your father’s challenge and to provide the High King with aid, but that is not the whole measure of why they are here.” He sounds bitter. “They come to scent weakness.”

I frown. “They are sworn to the crown. Their loyalty is tied to Cardan whether they want it to be or not.”

“Nonetheless,” Randalin goes on, “with the Undersea unable to send their forces, we are more dependent on them than ever. we would not wish the low Courts to bestow their loyalty only grudgingly. And when Madoc arrives—in mere days—he will seek to exploit any doubts. You create those doubts.”

Ah. Now I know what this is about.

He goes on. “There has never been a mortal Queen of Elfhame. And there should not be one now.”

“Do you really expect me to give up such enormous power on your say-so?” I ask.

“You were a good seneschal,” Randalin says, surprising me. “You care about Elfhame. That’s why I implore you to relinquish your title.”

It’s at that moment that the door swings open.

“we did not send for you, and we do not need you!” Randalin begins, clearly intending to give some servant—probably Fand—the tongue- lashing he wishes he could bestow on my person. Then he blanches and lurches to his feet.

The High King stands in the doorway. His eyebrows rise, and a malicious smile pulls at the corners of his mouth. “Many think that, but few are bold enough to say it to my face.”

Grima Mog is behind him. The redcap is bearing a gently steaming tureen. The scent of it wafts over to me, making my stomach growl.

Randalin sputters. “Your Majesty! Great shame is mine. My incautious comments were never intended for you. I thought that you

—” He stops himself and starts again. “I was foolish. If you desire my punishment—”

Cardan interrupts. “why don’t you tell me what you were discussing? I have no doubt you’d prefer Jude’s levelheaded answers to my nonsense, but it amuses me to hear about matters of state nonetheless.”

“I was only urging her to consider the war that her father is bringing. Everyone must make sacrifices.” Randalin glances toward Grima Mog, who sets down her tureen on a nearby table, then at Cardan again.

I could warn Randalin that he ought to be afraid of the way that Cardan is looking at him.

Cardan turns to me, and some of the heat of his anger is still in his eyes. “Jude, would you give me and the councilor a moment alone? I

have a few things I would like to urge him to consider. And Grima Mog has brought you soup.”

“I don’t need anyone to help me tell Randalin that this is my home and my land and that I am going nowhere and relinquishing nothing.”

“And yet,” Cardan says, clamping his hand on the back of the councilor’s throat, “there are still some things I would say to him.”

Randalin allows Cardan to hustle him into one of the other royal parlors. Cardan’s voice goes low enough for me to not make out the words, but the silky menace of his tone is unmistakable.

“Come eat,” Grima Mog says, ladling some soup into a bowl. “It will help you heal.”

Mushrooms float along the top, and when I push the spoon through, a few tubers float around, along with what might be meat. “what’s in this, exactly?”

The redcap snorts. “Did you know you left your knife in my alleyway? I took it upon myself to return it. I figured it was neighborly.” She gives me a sly grin. “But you weren’t home. Only your lovely twin, who has very fine manners and who invited me in for tea and cake and told me so many interesting things. You should have told me more. Perhaps we could have come to an arrangement sooner.”

“Perhaps,” I say. “But the soup—”

“My palate is discerning, but I have a wide range of tastes. Don’t be so finicky,” she tells me. “Drink up. You need to borrow a little strength.”

I take a sip and try not to think too much about what I’m eating. It’s a thin broth, well-seasoned and seemingly harmless. I tip up the bowl, drinking it all down. It tastes good and hot and makes me feel much better than I have since I woke in Elfhame. I find myself poking at the bottom for the solid bits. If there’s something terrible in it, I am better off not knowing.

while I am still searching for dregs, the door opens again, and Tatterfell comes in, carrying a mound of gowns. Fand and two additional knights follow with more of my garments. Behind them is Heather, in flip-flops, carrying a pile of jewelry.

“Taryn told me that if I came over, I’d get a glimpse of the royal chambers.” Then, coming closer, Heather lowers her voice. “I’m glad you’re okay. Vee wants us to leave before your dad gets here, so we’re going soon. But we weren’t going to leave while you were in a coma.”

“Going is a good idea,” I say. “I’m surprised you came.”

“Your sister offered me a bargain,” she says, a little regretfully. “And I took it.”

Before she can tell me more, Randalin rushes toward the door, nearly running into Heather in his haste. He blinks at her in astonishment, clearly not prepared for the presence of a second mortal. Then he departs, avoiding even a glance in my direction.

Big horns,” Heather mouths, looking after him. “Little dude.”

Cardan leans against the doorframe, looking very satisfied with himself. “There’s a ball tonight to welcome guests from some of my Courts. Heather, I hope you and Vivienne will come. The last time you were here, we were poor hosts. But there are many delights we could show you.”

“Including a war,” puts in Grima Mog. “what could be more delightful than that?”



After Heather and Grima Mog leave, Tatterfell remains to get me ready for the night ahead. She coils up my hair and paints my cheeks. I wear a gown of gold tonight, a column dress with an overlay of fine cloth that resembles gilded chain mail. Leather plates at the shoulders anchor swags of shining material showing more of my cleavage than I am used to having on display.

Cardan settles himself on a cushioned chair made from roots, then stretches out his legs. He is in a garment of midnight blue with metallic and jeweled beetle embroidery at the shoulders. On his head is the golden crown of Elfhame, the oak leaves shining atop it. He tilts his head to one side, looking at me in an evaluating manner.

“Tonight you’re going to have to speak with all the rulers,” he tells me.

“I know,” I say, glancing at Tatterfell. She looks perfectly pleased to hear him give me unasked-for guidance.

“Because only one of us can tell them lies,” he continues, surprising me. “And they need to believe our victory is inevitable.”

“Isn’t it?” I ask.

He smiles. “You tell me.”

“Madoc has no chance at all,” I lie dutifully.

I recall going to the low Court encampments after Balekin and Madoc’s coup, trying to persuade the lords and ladies and lieges of Faerie to ally with me. It was Cardan who told me which of them to approach, Cardan who gave me enough information about each for me to guess how to best convince them. If anyone can get me through tonight, it’s him.

He’s good at putting those around him at ease, even when they ought to know better.

Unfortunately, what I am good at is getting under people’s skin. But at least I am also good at lying.

“Has the Court of Termites arrived?” I ask, nervous about having to confront Lord Roiben.

“I am afraid so,” Cardan returns. He pushes himself to standing and offers me his arm. “Come, let us charm and confound our subjects.”

Tatterfell tucks in a few more of my hairs, smooths a braid, then relents and lets me rise.

Together, we go into the great hall, Fand and the rest of the guards flanking us with great pomp and circumstance.

As we stride in and are announced, a hush falls over the brugh. I hear the words as from a great distance: “The High King and High Queen of Elfhame.”

The goblins and grigs, hobs and sprites, trolls and hags—all the beautiful and glorious and awful Folk of Elfhame look our way. All their black eyes shine. All their wings and tails and whiskers twitch. Their shock at what they’re seeing—a mortal bound to their king, a mortal being called their ruler—seems to crackle in the air.

And then they rush forward to greet us.

My hand is kissed. I am complimented both extravagantly and hollowly. I try to remember who each of the lords and ladies and lieges are. I try to reassure them that Madoc’s defeat is inevitable, that we are happy to host them and equally delighted they sent ahead some portion of their Court, ready for a battle. I tell them that I believe the conflict will be short. I do not mention the loss of our allies in the Undersea or the fact that Madoc’s army will be carrying Grimsen’s weapons of war. I do not mention the enormous sword that Madoc plans to challenge Cardan with.

I lie and lie and lie.

“Your father seems like an excessively considerate enemy, summoning us together like this,” says Lord Roiben of the Court of Termites, his eyes like chips of ice. To repay a debt to him, I murdered Balekin. But that doesn’t mean he’s happy with me. Nor does it mean he believes the nonsense I have been peddling. “Not even my friends are always so considerate as to gather my allies for me ahead of battle.”

“It’s a show of strength, certainly,” I say. “He seeks to rattle us.” Roiben considers this. “He seeks to destroy you,” he counters.

His pixie consort, Kaye, puts her hand on her hip and cranes her neck for a better look around the room. “Is Nicasia here?”

“I’m afraid not,” I say, sure that no good could come from their talking. The Undersea was responsible for an attack on the Court of Termites, one that left Kaye badly hurt. “She had to return home.”

“Too bad,” Kaye replies, balling up a fist. “I’ve got something for her.”

Across the room, I see Heather and Vivi come in. Heather is in a pale ivory color that plays up the rich, beautiful brown of her skin. Her hair is twisted and pulled back in combs. Beside her, Vivi is in a deep scarlet

—very like the color of dried blood that Madoc was so fond of wearing.

A grig comes up, offering tiny acorns filled with fermented thistle milk. Kaye throws one back like a shot and winces. I refrain.

“Excuse me,” I say, crossing the room toward my sister. I pass Queen Annet of the Court of Moths, the Alderking and his consort, and dozens more.

“Isn’t it fun to dance?” asks Fala the Fool, interrupting my progress across the floor. “Let’s dance in the ashes of tradition.”

As usual, I have little idea what to say to him. I am not sure if he’s criticizing me or speaking in utter sincerity. I dart away.

Heather shakes her head when I get close. “Damn. That’s a dress.” “Oh good. I wanted to grab some drinks,” Vivi says. “Safe drinks.

Jude, can you stay until I get back, or will you be dragged into diplomacy?”

“I can wait,” I say, glad to have the chance to talk to Heather alone. The moment my sister walks away, I turn to her. “To what, exactly, did you agree?”

“why?” Heather asks. “You don’t think your sister would trick me, do you?”

“Not intentionally,” I hedge. Faerie bargains have a deservedly bad reputation. They are very seldom straightforward things. Sure, they sound good. Like, you’re being promised you’ll live out the rest of your days in bliss, but then you have one really great night and die in the morning. Or you’re promised you’ll lose weight, and then someone comes along and chops off one of your legs. It’s not as though I think Vivi would do that to Heather, but with the lesson of my own exile in my head, I’d still like to hear the specifics.

“She told me that Oak needed someone to stay with him in Elfhame while she went and got you. And made me this offer—when we were in Faerie, we could be together. when we went back, she’d make me forget Faerie and forget her, too.”

I suck in a breath. Is that what Heather wants? Or did Vivi offer and Heather agree because it seemed better than continuing the way things were? “So when you go home …”

“It’s over.” Despair flashes across her features. “There are things people shouldn’t get a taste for. I guess magic is like that.”

“Heather, you don’t have to—”

“I love Vee,” she says. “I think I made a mistake. The last time I was here, this place seemed like a beautifully shot horror movie, and I just wanted it all out of my head. But I don’t want to forget her.”

“Can’t you just tell her that?” I ask, looking across the room toward my sister, who is on her way back. “Call it off.”

Heather shakes her head. “I asked if she’d try to persuade me to change my mind. I think I was maybe doubting I’d be able to follow through with the breakup part. I guess I hoped she’d reassure me that she wanted me to change my mind. But Vee got very serious and said it could be part of the deal that no matter what I said later, she’d go through with it.”

“She’s an idiot,” I blurt out.

“I’m the stupid one,” Heather says. “If I hadn’t been so afraid—” She cuts herself off as Vivi comes up to us, three goblets balanced in her hands.

“what’s going on?” my sister asks, handing me my drink. “You both look weird.”

Neither Heather nor I answer. “well?” Vivi demands.

“Jude asked us to stay for another few days,” Heather says, surprising me enormously. “She needs our help.”

Vivi looks at me accusingly.

I open my mouth to protest, but I can’t deny any of it without exposing Heather. when Vivi used magic to make her forget what happened at Taryn’s wedding, I was furious with her. I couldn’t help but be aware of how she was one of the Folk and I was not. And right now, I can’t help but be aware of all the ways Heather is human.

“Just a few more days,” I agree, sure that I am being a bad sister, but maybe also a good one.

Across the room, Cardan raises a goblet. “Be welcome on the Isle of Insmire,” he says. “Seelie and Unseelie, wild Folk and Shy Folk, I am glad to have you march under my banner, glad of your loyalty, grateful for your honor.” His gaze goes to me. “To you, I offer honey wine and the hospitality of my table. But to traitors and oath breakers, I offer my queen’s hospitality instead. The hospitality of knives.”

There is a swell of noise, of joyful hissing and howls. Many eyes turn to me. I see Lady Asha, glowering in my direction.

All of Faerie knows I am the one who killed Balekin. They know I even spent some time in exile for it. They know I am Madoc’s foster daughter. They do not doubt Cardan’s words.

well, he has certainly made them see me as more than just the mortal queen. Now they see me as the murderess queen. I am not sure how I feel about it, but seeing the intensity of interest in their gazes now, I cannot deny it’s effective.

I raise my glass high and drink.

And by the time the party ebbs, when I pass courtiers, they all bow to me. Every last one.



I am exhausted as we leave the hall, but I keep my head up and my shoulders thrown back. I am determined not to let anyone know how tired I am.

It is only when I am back in the royal rooms that I allow myself to slouch a little, sagging against the doorframe to the inner chamber.

“You were very formidable tonight, my queen,” Cardan says, crossing the floor to me.

“After that speech you made, it didn’t take much.” Despite my fatigue, I am hyperaware of his presence, of the heat of his skin and the way his slow, conspiratorial smile makes my stomach twist with stupid longing.

“It cannot be anything other than the truth,” he says. “Or it never could have left my tongue.”

I find my gaze drawn to his soft lips, the black of his eyes, the cliffs of his cheekbones.

“You didn’t come to bed last night,” I whisper.

It occurs to me abruptly that while I was unconscious, he would have spent his nights elsewhere. Perhaps not alone. It has been a long time since I was last at Court. I have no idea who is in his favor.

But if there is someone else, his thoughts appear far from her. “I’m here now,” he says, as though he thinks it’s possible he misunderstands me.

It’s okay to want something that’s going to hurt, I remind myself. I move toward him, so we are close enough to touch.

He takes my hand in his, fingers lacing together, and bends toward me.

There is plenty of time for me to pull away from the kiss, but I don’t. I want him to kiss me. My weariness evaporates as his lips press against mine. Over and over, one kiss sliding into the next.

“You looked like a knight in a story tonight,” he says softly against my neck. “Possibly a filthy story.”

I kick him in the leg, and he kisses me again, harder.

we stagger against the wall, and I pull his body to mine. My fingers glide up under his shirt, tracing up his spine to the wings of his shoulder blades.

His tail lashes back and forth, the furred end stroking over the back of my calf.

He shudders and presses more tightly against me, deepening the kiss. His fingers push back my hair, damp with sweat. My whole body is tense with desire, straining toward him. I feel feverish. Every kiss seems to make my thoughts more drugged, my skin more flushed. His mouth is against my neck, his tongue on my skin. His hand moves to my hips, lifting me.

I feel overheated and out of control.

That thought cuts through everything else, and I freeze.

He releases me immediately, letting me down and then stepping back as though scalded. “we need not—” he begins, but that’s even worse. I don’t want him to guess how vulnerable I feel.

“No, just give me a second,” I say, then bite my lip. His eyes are very dark, pupils dilated. He’s so beautiful, so perfectly, horribly, inhumanly beautiful that I can barely breathe. “I’ll be right back.”

I flee to the wardrobe. I can still feel the drum of my thundering pulse all through my body.

when I was a kid, sex was a mystery, some bizarre thing people did to make babies when they got married. Once, a friend and I placed dolls in a hat and shook the hat around to indicate that they were doing it.

That changed in Faerie, of course. The Folk come naked to revels, may couple for entertainment, especially as evenings wear on. But though I understand what sex is now and how it’s accomplished, I didn’t anticipate how much it would feel like losing myself. when Cardan’s hands are on me, I am betrayed into pleasure. And he can tell. He’s practiced in the arts of love. He can draw whatever response he wants from me. I hate that, and yet I want it, all at once.

But maybe I don’t have to be the only one made to feel things.

I strip off my dress, kick off my shoes. I even take down my hair, letting it fall over my shoulders. In the mirror, I catch sight of my curves—the muscles of my arms and chest, honed by swordplay; the heaviness of my pale breasts; and the swell of my hips. Naked, there is no disguise for my mortality.

Naked, I return to the bedroom.

Cardan is standing by the bed. when he turns, he looks so astonished that I almost laugh. I have seldom seen him unsure of himself, even when drunk, even when wounded; it is rare to see him overset. A wild heat leaps into his eyes, an expression not unlike fear. I feel a rush of power, heady as wine.

Now this is a game I don’t mind playing.

“Come here,” he says, voice rough. I do, crossing the floor obediently.

I might be inexperienced in love, but I know a lot about provocation. I slide to my knees in front of him. “Is this what you imagined I’d be like, back in your rooms at Hollow Hall, when you thought of me and hated it? Is this how you pictured my eventual surrender?”

He looks absolutely mortified, but there’s no disguising the flush of his cheeks, the shine of his eyes. “Yes,” he says, sounding like the word was dragged out of him, his voice rough with desire.

“Then what did I do?” I ask, my voice low.

I reach out to press my hand against his thigh.

His gaze shimmers with a sharp spike of heat. There’s a wariness in his face, though, and I realize he believes I might be asking him all this because I’m angry. Because I want to see him humiliated. But he keeps speaking anyway. “I imagined you telling me to do with you whatever I liked.”

Really?” I ask, and the surprised laugh in my voice makes him meet my gaze.

“Along with some begging on your part. A little light groveling.” He gives me an embarrassed smile. “My fantasies were rife with overweening ambition.”

On my knees, it is a small thing to lie back on the cold stone. I reach up my hands, like a supplicant. “You may do with me whatever you like,” I say. “9lease oh please. All I want is you.”

He sucks in a breath and gets down so we’re both on the floor and he’s on his hands and knees, making a cage of his body. He presses his mouth to the pulse point of my wrist, racing in time with my heart. “Mock me all you like. whatever I imagined then, now it is I who would beg and grovel for a kind word from your lips.” His eyes are black with desire. “By you, I am forever undone.”

It seems impossible that he’s saying those words and that they’re true. But when he leans down and kisses me again, that thought blurs into sensation. He arches against me, shuddering. I begin to undo the buttons of his doublet. He tosses his shirt after it.

“I’m not mocking,” I whisper against his skin. when he looks down at me, his face is troubled.

“we have lived in our armor for so long, you and I. And now I am not sure if either of us knows how to remove it.”

“Is this another riddle?” I ask. “And if I answer it, will you go back to kissing me?”

“If that’s what you want.” His voice sounds rough, unsteady. He moves so that he is lying at my side.

“I told you what I wanted,” I say in challenge. “For you to do with me whatever—”

“No,” he interrupts. “what you want.”

I move so that I am straddling his body. Looking down at him, I study the planes of his chest, the voluptuous black curls damp against his brow, his slightly parted lips, the furred length of his tail.

“I want—” I say, but I am too shy to say the words. I kiss him instead. Kiss him until he understands.

He shucks off his pants, watching me as though waiting for me to change my mind. I feel the soft brush of his tail against my ankle, winding around my calf. Then I fumble my way into what I think is the right position. Gasp as our bodies slide together. He holds me steady through the sharp, bright spark of pain. I bite his palm. Everything is fast and hot, and I am kind of in control and out of control at the same time.

His face is wholly unguarded.

when we’re finished, he kisses me, sweet and raw.

“I missed you,” I whisper against his skin and feel dizzy with the intimacy of the admission, feel more naked than when he could see every inch of me. “In the mortal world, when I thought you were my enemy, I still missed you.”

“My sweet nemesis, how glad I am that you returned.” He pulls my body against his, cradling my head against his chest. we are still lying on the floor, although a perfectly good bed is right next to us.

I think of his riddle. How do people like us take off our armor? One piece at a time.

You'll Also Like